06 Nov 2012

Taking a busman’s tour of the best cities in the world

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Published: The New Zealand Herald – Tuesday November 6 2012
Photo by: Dean Purcell

Auckland Council’s Roger Blakeley goes on a metropolitan fact-finding mission

Roger Blakeley learned from his counterparts in four of the world’s most liveable cities. Picture / Dean Purcell

Auckland Council’s Roger Blakeley set out on a “busman’s tour” to look at four of the world’s “most liveable cities. Over a fortnight in July, Blakeley – Auckland Council’s chief planning officer – visited Vienna, Copenhagen, Bilbao and Vancouver.

Says Blakeley: “I chose these four cities because they consistently rate among the world’s most liveable cities in the surveys we are monitoring to assess Auckland’s progress towards its goal in the Auckland Plan of being the “world’s most liveable city”.

The primary purpose of my visits was to holiday and enjoy the experience of spending time in some of the best cities in the world. At the same time, I took the opportunity in each city to spend a day talking to my chief planning officer counterparts to gather learnings from their experience and to make contacts for future collaboration on the planning of our respective cities.

The richness of the history and experience and learnings from these four cities was such that this could have been a very long report.

It was encouraging to note that there was very strong alignment between the four top world cities visited and the Auckland Plan on major city strategies, in particular:

Compact city: all four cities have adopted a compact city model.

Transport: all four cities had integrated transport network systems, including metro, trams, roads, cycling and walkways. They are one or two decades ahead of Auckland, in that they have metro underground rail in place and mode splits of public transport, cycling and walking of 70-80 per cent and private car 20-30 per cent (compared with Auckland’s current split mode in the morning peak of 23 per cent public transport/cycling/walking and 77 per cent car).

Housing: the cities have a strong focus on adequacy of supply, flexibility of choice, and affordability of housing.

Green growth and climate change mitigation: the cities have very strong policies on green growth and ambitious climate change strategies including goals for greenhouse gas emission reduction.

History and culture: the cities capitalised on their heritage and culture as an attraction to tourists and contributor to liveability. The standout examples were Vienna’s music and art and Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum.

Smart cities: the cities have “smart city” practices including using digital information and communication technologies to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, improve service delivery and quality of life, supporting innovation and a low-carbon economy.


Although the Auckland Plan is very well aligned to the strategies of these four cities, there are learnings for us in terms of the emphasis and degree of progress.

From Vienna, we can learn from how they have capitalised on their arts and cultural heritage to promote tourism. We have already identified in the Auckland Plan that Maori heritage provides a point of difference for Auckland to the world which we could make greater advantage of in our offerings to visitors to Auckland and tourism promotion overall.

From Copenhagen, we can learn about the astonishing progress they have made in the high take up of cycling trips and the strength of their cycling network. We can also learn from their “people-friendly” city urban design practices. The Auckland Plan and the City Centre Masterplan promote both initiatives.

From Bilbao, we can learn about the impact that an iconic building (the Guggenheim Museum) can make as a catalyst for tourism growth and economic development. The Waterfront Plan has already identified the Wynyard Point as an ideal location for a future iconic building.

From Vancouver, we can learn about the effectiveness of collaborative processes in engaging the support of communities for intensification, and the strength of commitment to their aspiration to be the green capital of the world.

The Auckland Plan places Auckland “right up there” with the most progressive cities in the world. We also have much to learn from them, in terms of their progress and commitment to bold strategies, that could make Auckland a world-leading centre for urban design and development and operation through “smart city” digital systems; and a world-leading centre for innovation in our internationally competitive sectors: marine, tourism, food and beverage, high tech, screen and creative, finance, and tertiary education and training.

* Green growth, environmental action and transition to a low-carbon economy including retro-fitting buildings with high environmental green star ratings.

* Investigating an iconic building for the Wynyard Point.

* completing one integrated network transport system with a transformational shift to public transport, with demand management incentives.

* Capitalising on Maori heritage and culture as New Zealand’s point of difference in promoting Auckland to the world.


Vancouver aims to be the Greenest City in the World by 2020. It is set to bring community-based greenhouse gas emissions down to 5 per cent below 1990 levels, even as its population has grown by more than 27 per cent and jobs have increased by over 18 per cent

Vancouver’s electricity is generated in British Columbia – 93 per cent from renewable sources. It is developing neighbourhood-scale renewable energy projects; has implemented the greenest building code in North America and is creating compact neighbourhoods with easy access to work, shopping and recreation. The city has shifted investment to walking, cycling and transit infrastructure instead of building new roads.

Urban design
Vancouver has a “living first” strategy. Commuter car access is limited in downtown by giving priority to transit users, cyclists and pedestrians, rather than to alleviating traffic congestion. It has made a conscious choice not to allocate major capital spending or additional space to the car. Complete neighbourhoods are being developed at pedestrian scale with a full array of amenities – schools, daycares, community centres, parks.

65 acres of new parks were added to the downtown peninsula inventory over the last decade, all of which are tied together by a spectacular waterfront walkway/bikeway system.

About 4 per cent of commuting trips are made by bike – the fast-growing mode of travel. The city recently completed a 100-lane – kilometres of additional bike routes. Vancouver has a metro system. It has also recently reintroduced trams (streetcars) as a demonstration project during the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Economic development
Vancouver is recognised as a leading clean-technology centre, innovator in energy management software, bio-mass power generation, green buildings and clean technology. One company’s advanced alternate fuel engines are sold around the world. According to the Clean-Tech CEO Alliance, there are about 100 clean-tech companies in British Columbia, worth about $1 billion annually – the third-largest such cluster in the world. I saw two examples of high-rise intensification which had been managed with the support of the local community, which was involved from the start of the process, inviting their ideas rather than presenting a proposal. The design met objectives such as shops and a library. It also provided for upzoning of the surrounding residential area which would have benefits to residents in increased land values. The community representatives cheered when the council approved the proposal. We are planning a similar engagement process for the Auckland Unitary Plan.


Vienna has a rich 2000 years’ history, contains monuments of world significance, and has for centuries been the cradle of the highest creations of European music.

The historic centre of Vienna was established by Unesco in 2001 as a world heritage site.

Green city/smart city
Vienna was also rated Number 1 in the Top 10 “smart cities” on the planet. The definition of “smart cities” is: use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint – all supporting innovation and the low carbon economy. Vienna was ranked in the top 10 in every category; innovation city (5), regional green city (4), quality of life (1), and digital governance (8). Vienna is establishing bold smart-city targets and tracking its progress to reach them.

Vienna’s planners are incorporating stakeholder consultation processes into building and executing carbon reduction, transport and land-use planning changes. Vienna has set a target of 95 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels, by 2050, predominately through compact urban form, reduced transport emissions, and energy-efficient housing.

Population: 1.55 million – projected to be 1.7 million by 2020.

Strategic advantages: Kurt Puchinger, Vienna’s Director of Planning, told Blakeley history and music are the factors that have put Vienna among the world’s most liveable cities. Some of the world’s greatest musicians, Mozart, Strauss, Brahms, Haydn and Beethoven were born or lived in Vienna. It was also home to the artist Gustav Klimt, whose famous painting The Kiss is one of the most recognisable paintings in the world. The richness of Vienna’s cultural, artistic and historic heritage is also a substantial draw for tourism.

The Vienna Plan is based on a compact city model. The city has an integrated transport system involving metro underground, trams, cycling, cycleways, walkways, and roads and uses parking charges as a financial tool to encourage a lower use of private cars to the city centre.

Urban Design: A feature of Vienna’s urban design is provision for green space and open space. The city of Vienna has 48 per cent of the city’s area allocated for green landscape, municipal and federal gardens and water for open space and recreational areas.

Architecture: Vienna encourages innovation in architecture – the famous Hundertwasserhaus, by painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser is a case in point.


Bilbao is world-famous for the Guggenheim Museum but its old settlement dates back to Roman times. In 2009, the residential population was 360,000.

Strategic advantages.
Metropole-30 Director-General Alfonso Cearra points to two factors that have made Bilbao a world-class city:

* the metro underground, designed by Sir Norman Foster, opened in 1995

* the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, opened in 1997

Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggenheims were one of the great American rags-to-riches stories. By World War I they controlled 75 per cent of the earth’s silver, copper and lead. Solomon Guggenheim acquired an interest in art at 65. Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Basque Nationalist Party subsequently spent $100 million on a satellite museum in Bilbao to rival the Sydney Opera House as a spectacular defining characteristic of the city.

The museum quickly become self-financing as attendance rates have vastly exceeded projections.

A decision was made to seize opportunities to develop Bilbao around knowledge, culture and art, including an iconic facility. The “Guggenheim effect” has had a huge impact on the success of Bilbao.

Urban regeneration
The Nervion River has been cleaned up. Port facilities have now been developed outside the mouth of the estuary. A new transport system was created based on the new metro. Heavy rail infrastructure was removed and replaced with a new tramway supported by the metro.

An urban regeneration project was undertaken on both banks of the river through a public body BilbaoRia, private investors, and a public/private entity, Zorrotzaurre. The vision was to recover the river as the new core of the Metropole. Masterplans were established. Attractive public spaces including parks, fountains, public art and cafes replaced the previous wasteland. Part of this regeneration area was the space allocated for the Guggenheim Museum. The new developments also included apartments, offices, commercial centres, enhancements to the university, leisure and sports facilities.

The last urban project is an attractive design proposal including mixed use for residential apartments, hi-tech business, promenades, pedestrian bridges, regeneration of existing houses, business incubators and cultural facilities for a creative district, serviced by public transport trams.


Copenhagen was founded around 1000 AD on the island of Slotsholmen. It became capital of Denmark in 1443. It was occupied by the Nazis in World War II. The population of Copenhagen in 2010 was 530,000.

Strategic advantages
Copenhagen has been restructuring its street network for several decades, removing driving lanes and parking places in a deliberate process to create better and safer conditions for bicycle traffic.

City intersections have bicycle crossings painted in blue and, together with special traffic lights for bicycles that turn green six seconds before cars are allowed to move forward, this makes it considerably safer to cycle around the city.

Bicycle traffic doubled from 1995-2005 and by 2008, 37 per cent of personal transport to and from work and education institutions was by bicycle. Cycling now exceeds private car trips. It has a complete network of cycleways covering the whole city.

Transport: It has an integrated transport system including underground, trams, dedicated cycleways and walkways. It has been described as the “best cycling city in the world”.

Economic development: Denmark has high taxes (average 50 per cent of income). It has a big welfare state which provides free public health care, education, childcare and job training on top of generous unemployment benefits.

Wages are high; prices are high too. Denmark has enjoyed steady economic growth over the past decade, with low unemployment, a budget surplus and shrinking government debt. It has done this with a mix of free labour markets, unfettered business and adjusting welfare to give incentives for people to work so they can pay taxes to finance the benefits they get.

Green city/smart city
Copenhagen was rated No. 8 in the top 10 smart cities survey. It was rated No. 1 on the green scale in Europe by Siemens. It has also received a No. 1 ranking in a global resilient cities survey. Copenhagen is taking a leadership role on sustainable innovation committing to carbon neutrality by 2025. It is planning to invest in growth in the green economy such as clean technology.

How the four cities rate

Vienna: No 1 on Mercer’s World’s most liveable cities index (2012;

Copenhagen: No 3 on Monocle magazine’s 2012 index;

Vancouver: No 3 on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 rating (Vienna was No 2);

How Auckland rates
No 3 on Mercer’s world’s most liveable cities index (2011); No 9 on Monocle Magazine’s 2012 rating; No 10 on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 rankings.


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